Best of 2015

Another year in the books (heh heh, a little author humor there)

So I, er, haven’t done as much writing this  past year as I had hoped to. But what I have done is read a lot of great books and played a bunch of great games! Without further ado, here is Jessica’s Best of 2015 list:

BEST BOOKS

A lot of the stuff I read in 2015 was actually published in earlier years, so I’ll make two lists here – my top reads of 2015, as well as top books published in 2015.

READ IN 2015

The Fever series by Karen Marie Moning

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The Fever series tells the story of a young woman in Dublin who discovers she can see through the illusions of the Fae and has the ability to fight against their plot to bring all of their kind, even the Unseelie, over from Faery into our own world

I tore through books 1 through 5 in this series in a matter of 2 weeks, I was so hooked! Darkfever was good,  Bloodfever was great, Faefever and Dreamfever were a-freaking-mazing. The fifth in the series, Shadowfever (published in 2011), was actually a big disappointment to me, but it wrapped up the story of Mac and the Sinsar Dubh and so I’ll include it. Moning actually went on to add more books to the Fever series after that, but with a new plot and focusing on different characters, so I don’t count them as exactly part of this same group. I did go on to read Iced, and although I mostly enjoyed it, it definitely has turned into something that is more of a guilty pleasure, with more sex and violence than actual substance, but still great fun. I imagine someday I will move on to Burned and the soon-to-be released Feverborn, but I’m not in any hurry (unlike with books 1-5 that I devoured!)

The Martian by Andy Weir

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What a fun book this was! The science was impressive, the stakes high, and yet the narration was hilarious.

Mark Watney is thought dead by his fellow crew members who leave him behind when forced to abandon their mission on Mars. Left alone on the planet with no other manned missions due to arrive for a couple of years, Watney is forced to “science the s#*%” out of the situation in order to survive. The book is mostly comprised of his journal entries.

“By my reckoning, I’m about 100 kilometers from Pathfinder. Technically it’s called ‘Carl Sagan Memorial Station.’ But with all due respect to Carl, I can call it whatever the hell I want. I’m the King of Mars.”

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life
This book’s sequel, A God in Ruins, follows the story of Ursula’s beloved brother, and was a contender for best historical fiction in Goodreads’ 2015 Choice Awards.

This book dragged a bit for me in the middle, but overall I thought it was pretty amazing. It’s lyrical and bittersweet as it unfolds the chapters of woman’s life, with the twist that any time she dies, her life starts over again from the beginning. She has no concrete recollection of her previous lives, just occasional uneasy feelings and portents of doom when she approaches situations that didn’t end so well for her in past run-throughs. This allows her to make small changes that steer her clear of repeating mistakes of her past/present/future, and it’s fascinating to watch how big of an impact these changes can have in how her life plays out, all against the backdrop of 20th century Europe.

Sunbolt by Intisar Khanani

Sunbolt

Sunbolt is a novella, with a full-length novel sequel due to come out in the near future. The first half of this story was decent, but the second half absolutely blew me away. The whole concept of the resigned breather was compelling – restraining himself in order not to hurt Hitomi, but fearing the end result is likely inevitable. The ashes and cinders rendered by the titular sunbolt, memories seared from our MC’s mind – such great imagery here! And of course the Promise in Hitomi. I can’t wait to read the rest of her story!

PUBLISHED IN 2015

Golden Son by Pierce Brown

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While I didn’t love this sequel as much as its predecessor, Red Rising, it was still one hell of a fun ride. There are some truly great snippets of writing in here. I particularly love parts of Darrow’s initial meet-up with the Jackal. The Jackal creeps me out, but in the best way possible.

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The Pyramids of London by Andrea K. Host

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Host’s newest novel provides fresh new takes on many facets of fantasy fare, such as vampirism. The steampunk elements of the book are great fun. In the end, this book ended up being different from what I expected, but still quite enjoyable. I absolutely adore Heriath/Makepeace and find the dynamic between him and Rian quite fascinating, and hope to see more of him in the next installment of the series, Tangleways.

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day

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This is Day’s memoir about growing up home-schooled (and mostly self-taught) while bouncing around the southern U.S., graduating college with a 4.0 double majoring in math and music at 20 years of age, then moving to Hollywood to make it big, baby! She reflects on the advent of the internet in homes of the public, and how it can be such a great tool to bring together people with common interests who might otherwise feel like outsiders. She tells her story with the great wit and humor she is known for.

Technically, this book belongs in the next category, but this is my blog and I decided to put it here, so deal with it 😉

BEST NONFICTION READS IN 2015

Monique and the Mango Rains by Kris Holloway (published 2006)

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Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation by Bill Nye (published 2014)

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BEST GAMES

I don’t play as many video games as I would like to these days, but of the ones I did end up trying out this year, here were my favorites:

Tales from the Borderlands by Telltale Games

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Fiona and Rhys, the two characters you play in Tales from the Bordlerands

I love adventure point-and-click RPG type games, and this fits the bill. However, I had heard TftB was also something of a comedy, and I wasn’t sure it was quite my cup of tea. But I read so many good reviews, and with a little help from Andrea K. Host and Kyle Arrington (thanks so much for the recommendations, guys!) I gave it a shot. I am so glad I did, because this is hands-down my game of the year!

Released over a series of five episodes, TftB is based in the world built in the Borderlands ‘first person shooter’ games, but you need not play those first in order to enjoy this. I had no knowledge of Borderlands going into this, and it wasn’t a problem.

Hyperion is a somewhat tyrannical corporation (created by the late sociopathic Handsome Jack) based on Helios, a space station that orbits the planet Pandora. Pandora has an Old West feel to it, but is filled with a bunch of criminals and psychopaths. This combination creates a very steampunky vibe.

You go back and forth between playing two characters in this game: Rhys, a goofy but lovable guy with cybernetic implants who works (or worked) as middle management with Hyperion. When his company rival becomes head honcho and demotes him to Vice Assistant Janitor, Rhys and his accountant buddy Vaughn decide to get revenge by hijacking the rival’s deal to buy a highly desirable and rare vault key, which might just lead to treasures untold.

The other playable character is tough as nails Fiona, a con artist from Pandora. She and her sister Sasha have a new heist in the works: trying to sell a fake vault key to the corporate scum from Hyperion.

Hijinks ensue. The vault key is revealed as fake, the great sum of money meant to buy it is blown up, but in the meantime the existence of another vault key is revealed. Rhys and Vaughn, Fiona and Sasha are all thrown together in their attempt to find this new treasure to make up for what was lost in the deal gone wrong. But they’ve ticked off a lot of people in the meantime, and these new enemies aren’t going to make things any easier for them.

The characters are really likable, the story is fantastic, the writing is smart, the game is FUNNY, and Tales from the Borderlands provides some ridiculously fun storytelling. I can’t recommend it enough! And last I knew it was available for 66% off through Steam, so if you’re even thinking about playing, you should definitely give it a try – I did, and I’ve voted it BEST DECISION OF 2015. Okay, not really. But it’s probably close!

And for the record – I REALLY love the way Telltale does the opening credits near the beginning of each episode. So great, with perfect licensed music choices to accompany them. Check out the one for episode 2:

 

I also really, really love the one for episode 5, but keep in mind this one will be a bit spoilerific, so you might not want to watch it yet if you plan on playing the game and want to see it for yourself.

 

Until Dawn by Supermassive Games

Until Dawn

I know I’ve already written about this game in a previous post, so I guess I’ll keep in short and sweet here. This is a survival horror game with supernatural elements, with a neat story and exciting gameplay. How many of the 8 playable characters can you keep alive until dawn?

Life is Strange by Dontnod Entertainment

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I’ve posted about this game previously as well. It has its faults, but overall I still greatly enjoyed the story. The ending (my ending, at least – for those of us who made the RIGHT choice!!!) was especially poignant.

Honorable Mention

What this category means is that I have started playing this game, have not finished yet, but enjoy it and expect to really like it all once I’ve finished 🙂

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture by The Chinese Room

Everybody's Gone to the Rapture

You find yourself in a recently-abandoned village and explore the absolutely gorgeous environs in order to glean clues as to what happened to its missing population.

 

I guess that wraps it up! I look forward to reading, playing, (AND WRITING!) more great stuff in the year to come.

Happy New Year, everybody!

 

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Various and Sundry

I am being terrible about getting The Prophecy out in a timely manner, I know. Apologies! I have about 2/3 of the current draft done and out to beta readers, in the hopes that feedback will help inspire me to get my backside in gear and finish revising the last 1/3.

In the meantime, here are a few entertaining things I’ve come across since my last post.

Until Dawn

Until Dawn is a survival horror game for the PlayStation 4 that I found to be a whole lot of fun, and creepy as hell! There are eight playable characters, and you cycle through controlling each of them at different times. As you play a certain character, the actions and dialogue you choose for them lead to different outcomes and affect their relationships with the others (through the game’s “butterfly effect” scheme). It is possible to reach the end of the game with all eight of them still alive, everybody dead, or anywhere in between. In my first playthrough I only managed to keep three of them alive until dawn. I did a second playthrough, this time using an internet guide to make sure I kept everybody alive, and right near the very end of the game the power went out in my house and fried the console 😦 The hard drive was salvageable, but we lost all save game data. I do plan on trying again, but it’s taking some time to muster up the morale to start all over again when I was so close to my goal!

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The game tells the story of a group of teenagers returning to a mountain lodge on the first anniversary of the disappearance of two of their number at the same location. This may seem like an odd thing to do, but the reasoning behind this move is revealed later in the game and makes a very compelling kind of sense. But whatever happened to their friends the year before seems to be happening to them now, one by one. Is the horror here slasher in nature, or something altogether more supernatural? I highly suggest you play yourself and find out!

Another fun and impressive aspect of this game is the way it was created using full face and body motion capture. That means live actors performed all of the scenes wearing the bits and bobs (yeah, I don’t know the technical jargon) for the cameras to catch it all and computers to bring them to life on screen. The cast includes such notables as Hayden Panettiere and Rami Malek. And I’ll admit, I love me some Rami Malek…

Until Dawn actors

hayden panettiereRami Malek 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also on the video game front, Jonathan Boakes and The Darkling Room have released a delightful way to pass some time, a short interlude of a game called The Last Crown: Midnight Horror. Its predecessor, The Lost Crown, was a full-length enchanting ghost-hunting adventure game released in 2008. Production value may have been a bit low (the voice acting in particular leaves something to be desired), but it was beautiful to look at, fun, and wonderfully creepy! The team has been working on its sequel, The Last Crown: Blackenrock ever since, but alas, fans of the franchise are still waiting. Boakes assures us the release date is coming soon, but in the meantime, we have been provided with this fun miniature adventure to enjoy. It came out for Halloween, and in fact the story takes place during the week between All Hallow’s Eve and Bonfire Night, that night which marks the failure of the gunpowder plot attempted by Guy Fawkes and his collaborators. (Remember, remember the fifth of November!)

Last Crown Midnight Horror 2

 

Last, but certainly not least, I have FINALLY “discovered” Felicia Day. This after being told by multiple people over the past year or so that I should check out her work. I at last picked up her memoir, “You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)” and realized not only that she is hilariously entertaining, but also that we share many of the same interests: namely books and video games (and a history of violin playing). I have since been watching the live streams of her playing the same sorts of games I play, sometimes along with her brother (who is just as amusing as she is), and have also joined her online book club. The club, with the charming moniker Vaginal Fantasy, has its base over at Goodreads and reads primarily romance novels (often SFF) with strong female protagonists. Once a month there is a live club “meeting” on the web, where Felicia and three other lovely ladies (Bonnie Burton, Veronica Belmont, and Kiala Kazebee) discuss the month’s pick, and anyone watching can use the chat feature to type in their own comments or questions. (Felicia addressed me and answered one of my questions and I totally fan-girled all over the place!) You can find the Vaginal Fantasy Goodreads group at https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/62938-vaginal-fantasy-book-club

Felicia 1

Vaginal Fantasy
The ladies donned mustaches for the discussion of the group’s western romance pick

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A sad truth is that I don’t know many people IRL who enjoy the same games I do, and I miss terribly the days when my sister and I would play them together. In a way, watching Felicia play them live over the internet helps fill that missing piece to a degree. Watching her and her brother play together is bittersweet, too. Although usually I’m too busy crying from laughter to feel sad. For example:

Beautiful Distractions

A series of retweeting brought this little gem from author Joel Ross to my attention the other day: “Recently learned that the collective noun for a group of writers is a ‘procrastination'”.

I really, really keep meaning to work on revising my draft of The Prophecy! I have to admit, though, that I’ve only gotten through the first three chapters so far. In part due to the normal constraints of a full time job and two young children, but also in large part due to this:

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I have never in my life had a dog before now, so this is a huge learning process for everybody involved. I knew puppies were a lot of work, but I didn’t quite realize just how overwhelming they can be. Oh, how I look forward to the time when cleaning poop no longer takes up a significant chunk of my day! Even when I might once have had time to work on my book, I literally cannot risk taking my eyes off this little cutie, for fear of something wholly undesirable happening in and/or to my house.

(Deep breath) This, too, shall pass…

And okay, okay, I may have gotten sucked into more video games, too. I have always loved adventure games for the PC. There is no longer much demand for this type of game in the US. A lot of them are produced in Eastern Europe these days, and many of those depend on crowdfunding to raise the necessary money to develop them. Even then, the games tend to be released in separate “episodes” rather than all at once. Certainly not ideal, but beggars in the world of PC adventure gaming can’t be choosers, and they are still a good deal of fun.

As of right now, these are the two episodic games I have been playing:

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Dreamfall Chapters

 

 

 

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Life is Strange

 

 

 

 

 

Dreamfall Chapters follows Zoe Castillo, a young woman in futuristic “Europolis,” who finds she is the key to stopping the Undreaming, which threatens both our science-based world and the magical realm of Arcadia. This story began in The Longest Journey, followed by Dreamfall, and should be concluded with the last episode of Dreamfall Chapters.

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Chapter One begins just how the last game ended: with Zoe in a coma. Here we see Dreaming Zoe and Past Zoe, all in Coma Zoe’s head

In Life is Strange, you play as Max, a girl who has recently joined a prestigious private academy for high school seniors. Blackwell Academy has an acclaimed photography program, which is what drew Max there despite the fact that she had to move away from home and attend school with strangers, many of whom are snobs and/or bullies. In the course of the first chapter, Max learns that she can rewind time; very useful when your chosen course of action may have sub-optimal consequences.

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Handy thing, turning back time

Both of these titles present you with choices throughout gameplay, and what you choose to do affects the path the story takes and its outcome. They’re like interactive choose-your-own-adventure stories! So much fun. Both games have a neat feature at the end of each episode, where you can see what percentage of other players made the same choices as you.

On top of all this, there is my TV show obsession, The Originals, and of course I still try to make time to read for fun everyday as well.

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If you think you have family troubles, imagine if you were all the world’s very first vampires with one thousand years worth of drama

But fear not! I promise you the day will soon come when I give myself a swift kick in the rear and get some serious work done on The Prophecy! I do tend go through periods of procrastination followed by intense writing sessions. If other people could just cut it out with all the brilliant storytelling they do in their own medium, I wouldn’t get distracted and could get to work on my own stuff! (Seriously, though, please don’t stop. There’s some wonderful stuff being made out there, keep up the good work everyone, you’re all amazing.)

The Prophecy Front Cover